Newly minted Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has tapped respected Manitoba MP Candice Bergen to serve as his second in command.
O’Toole announced at a press conference in Ottawa Wednesday that Bergen, a former cabinet minister who has represented the riding of Portage—Lisgar since 2008, will serve as his deputy leader.
Watch: O’Toole says unity, positivity key to Conservative success
Though O’Toole represents the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) riding of Durham, he has repeatedly stressed the importance of tackling western alienation since winning the Tory leadership more than a week ago. That approach has already won praise from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who was a key backer of O’Toole in the leadership contest.
“We must not allow Canada to be divided by the Liberals’ Ottawa-knows-best attitude and the politics of confrontation,” O’Toole said Wednesday.
In appointing Bergen, O’Toole appears to be taking a page from his predecessors’ playbooks. Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, a Saskatchewan MP who represents Regina—Qu’Appelle, counterbalanced his House of Commons leadership team by naming former GTA MP for Milton Lisa Raitt as his deputy in 2017. When Raitt was defeated in the 2019 election, Scheer tapped Leona Alleslev, the former Liberal-turned-Conservative MP from Ontario’s Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill, as his deputy.
Prior to Scheer, interim Tory leader Rona Ambrose named Quebec MP Denis Lebel as her deputy.
A reporter noted that O’Toole is the first leader of the modern Conservative party who doesn’t hail from the West, and asked Bergen what she thought about an apparent power shift eastward in the party.
Bergen, who did not endorse a candidate in the leadership race, said O’Toole won strong support across the country and in Western Canada.
“He spoke to people in the West. He let them know that he was listening to them, and the very first thing he brought up with the prime minister is western alienation,” she said.
Asked how seriously he is taking the separatist Wexit Canada party, now being led by former Tory House leader Jay Hill, O’Toole seemed to concede the group could eat into his party’s support.
It “worked out well for the Liberals,” he suggested, when another party based on western alienation, the former Reform party, split conservative votes.
“Conservatives win when we’re united. When we represent the aspirations of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, for the future,” he said. “We’re not a party of selfies and hashtags, we’re a party of creating jobs and opportunities for Canadians.
“And we don’t pit one region off another, which is what the Trudeau government has done. That is why there has been a rise in alienation.”
O’Toole said he spoke with Hill months ago before he took the job and will be listening to that party’s concerns. His message to those who are frustrated is “don’t let Justin Trudeau win, make sure we’re united, make sure we win the next election.”
Bergen told reporters the new Tory leader has also asked her to focus on western alienation, saying “westerners need to know that Conservatives know that this is an issue and that they will not be ignored.”
Bergen is seen as a strong performer in the House. Three weeks ago, before Parliament was prorogued, she let loose a blistering critique of the prime minister in the House that covered everything from Trudeau’s blackface controversy to the SNC-Lavalin affair to the WE Charity controversy.
“Six months into this pandemic, and six years into this government, and the prime minister will be remembered for a $343-billion deficit and for setting the lowest bar ever for a prime minister’s conduct in the history of this country,” she said at the time.
The promotion, however, may ultimately lighten Bergen’s pockets because she will no longer serve as Opposition House leader, a role she has held since 2016. That position, which involves managing the Official Opposition’s business in the House and negotiating with the Government House leader over proceedings, comes with a pay bump of $41,500 this year on top of the base MP salary of $182,600.
That responsibility now belongs to Quebec MP Gérard Deltell, who has represented the riding of Louis-Saint-Laurent since 2015. Though Deltell endorsed O’Toole’s leadership bid in 2017, he stayed neutral this time around.
O’Toole has also named Richard Martel, the MP for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, to serve as his Quebec political lieutenant. Martel, a former junior hockey coach who snagged the seat from the Liberals in a 2018 byelection, will now be the Tory leader’s top spokesperson on issues affecting the province.
Martel, who was the only sitting Quebec MP to back O’Toole’s leadership bid, replaces Richmond—Arthabaska MP Alain Rayes in the position. O’Toole told reporters in French he has a lot of respect for Rayes and will be naming him to an “important role” in his shadow cabinet, which he says will be unveiled next week.
Martel’s coaching career made him well-known throughout the province, O’Toole said, and will help the party grow. “I love Richard. He’s my favourite hockey coach,” he said.
O’Toole released a Quebec-specific platform during the race in the hopes of boosting Tory fortunes in a province that elected just 10 Conservative MPs last fall.
O’Toole also rewarded other MPs who endorsed him with key positions on his House leadership team, including:
- Blake Richards, MP for Alberta’s Banff—Airdrie, who is the new chief opposition whip;
- Alex Ruff, MP for Ontario’s Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound, who is the deputy opposition whip;
- Eric Duncan, MP for Ontario’s Stormont—Dundas—South Glengarry, who is question period coordinator.
However, in something of an olive branch, Tim Uppal, who backed Peter MacKay for his party’s leadership, was named caucus-party liaison. Ontario MP Karen Vecchio, who also endorsed MacKay, will serve as deputy opposition House leader.
Calgary Shepard MP Tom Kmiec will remain the Conservative national caucus chair, a position he was elected to by his peers during the firstTory caucus meeting after the last election.
‘Our sabre is sharp,’ O’Toole says of possible election
With a throne speech and confidence vote looming in the coming weeks, O’Toole said that his priority is on the re-launch of the economy “post-COVID,” not a fall election. But if that should come to pass, he said, Tories are united and “financially equipped” to fight another campaign.
“If (Liberals) want to rattle the sabres, they will find that our sabre is sharp, but I’m not here for an election,” he said.
O’Toole was also asked about controversies involving members of his caucus.
Over the weekend, B.C. Tory MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay apologized for re-tweeting an edited video of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland interviewing billionaire George Soros in 2009 when she was a journalist. Findlay said Freeland’s “closeness” to Soros should alarm every Canadian and claimed she listened “like student to teacher.”
Soros, who is Jewish and contributes money to liberal causes, is frequently the target of vile anti-Semitic attacks and conspiracy theories from the far-right.
Findlay later tweeted that she “thoughtlessly shared content from what I am now learning is a source that promotes hateful conspiracy theories. I have removed the tweets and apologize.”
O’Toole was asked Wednesday why he did not release a statement of his own denouncing the post.
“When I found out about it, the tweet was already down and Ms. Findlay had apologized for it,” he said. O’Toole added that he called “leaders from the Jewish community” to say the Conservative Party will remain the “loudest voice against the rise of anti-Semitism” under his leadership.
O’Toole was also asked if rookie Ontario MP Derek Sloan, who ran against him for leader, will land a critic role in his shadow cabinet. The previously little-known Sloan had a number of controversial moments during the race, including his questioning of Dr. Theresa Tam’s loyalty to Canada and his equating of a promised conversion therapy ban to child abuse.
O’Toole wouldn’t say one way or the other if he will include Sloan on his team of critics, but said he plans to speak with him soon.
With files from The Canadian Press